Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mary Lou and the old May place

I went to Mary Lou Johnson's funeral last week, which --- as funerals tend to do --- stirred up a lot of memories, all pleasant, most dating back more than 40 years. It seems to take a funeral in these scattered times to pull together a roomful of diverse people just to sit together for a while and focus on something, or someone, they have in common.

Mary Lou seemed to me one of those people who never changed --- and we all need some of those in our lives. I can't imagine how she got to be 87, since she always looked just as I thought she should look when I saw her --- which didn't happen often, regrettably. I wonder how many times I've said to myself, "I should go ask Mary Lou," and then didn't.

Her late husband, Dale, was the youngest of the six "Johnson boys," first-cousins of my dad, so there was that family connection and it had been a close one since they all grew up and went to school together.

It was good to see Mary Lou's kids before the funeral --- my second cousins --- Esther and Rebecca, who I remember well; Rose and Dan, not remembered at all because they were quite a bit younger. Jimmy is gone. Like his dad, he died hard --- of cancer.

I remember Mary Lou's parents, Lloyd and Bessie May, too --- and the great old place where she grew up and lived for much of her life, once a landmark southwest of Russell, now vanished entirely.

My dad most likely knew Mary Lou, then a teen-ager, before Dale did.

Dad's first work out of high school during the great depression was as a hand for the Slaters, who had a big farm just east of the May place. The Slaters --- matriarch Sarah Ruth, maiden daughter and bachelor son Mary and Ray, and formidable sister, Elba (Sikes) --- did not treat hired help kindly. Lloyd and Bessie knew that and had my dad over for meals as often as they could convince him to come. So he got to know the three younger of the May children --- Mary Lou, Virginia and Larry --- well.

For some reason, the memory of Lloyd and Bessie that sticks in my head involves a long-ago Sunday morning when we were driving north on the Transformer Road, headed for a family gathering at my granddad's house. Lloyd and Bessie, then perhaps in their 70s, were walking up the road, headed for First Baptist Church in Russell. Their old car had broken down about half way between home and church and given the choice of walking home or to church, they'd decided on church. We delivered them.

Even though it's long gone, I still think about that big old house the Mays, later Mary Lou and Dale, lived in. That's it in the photo here, not the best quality since it's a scan from Lucas County's 1978 history book. It had been built during 1885 by Albert S. Beals, father of that legendary (in Lucas County at least) Baptist preacher, Archie Beals --- a palace on the prairie.

There were, I'm told, 16 rooms originally --- I don't remember them all. I do remember the walnut spiral stair in the part of the house that projects from the front, the big fireplace in the living room and the fact there was a back staircase, too. Children, on special occasions, could drive adults nuts by running in circles --- up the front staircase and down the back staircase, again and again.

The big barn, either the largest or second-largest in Lucas County depending upon whom you believe, came along a little later, in 1897. It's very hard to get an idea here of just how big that barn was, but you can kind of see a full-sized windmill to the left in the scanned snapshot and that adds a little perspective.

The house was so big that when Lloyd and Bessie were moving into Russell during 1969 after Dale and Mary Lou had purchased the farm (this happened when I was home on leave, but I can't recall where I was headed next --- Vietnam most likely), Bessie inadvertently set the place afire while burning trash in a stove attached to a faulty chimney and burned off a couple of rooms. There were enough left for a big family.

This is all leading up the fact that while doing some research later in the week after Mary Lou's funeral, I happened upon an article in The Chariton Leader of Aug. 30, 1917, reporting on the sale of the old Beals place to Lloyd May and his brother.

I'd have asked Mary Lou about this, had I had enough sense to talk to her when I could, since I'm interested in old Ragtown and the St. John Tavern, which served the earliest travelers bound from Greenville and points east into Chariton on the old "Mormon Road." Happening upon it now seems a little suspicious:

"On Saturday, A.S. Beals sold his fine farm in Benton township to the May brothers --- Lloyd, of that township, and Dr. Virgil May, of Marionette, Wisconsin. They own adjoining lands and it was very convenient for them to secure this tract. This has been a well-cared-for place and consists of 228 acres, and the price paid was $132.50 per acre. On this place are the largest farm buildings in Lucas county, and prior to the time when Mr. Beals became the owner of the farm it was a noted stopping place for the pioneer travelers on the old Mormon Trace road, and was known as the St. John farm. On the farm at that time was the big tavern building and barns for domestic and travel accommodation, but these were later torn down and gave place to the present structures. It is a fine old homestead place."


Virginia Cox said...

Frank, Where was this house? Was it anywhere close to Hawkeye School?

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Virgina --- No, it was a little southwest of Russell. The Transformer Road is Russell's west city limit. Drive west on Russell's main east-west drag paralleling the railroad tracks until you hit that road (Ted Smith used to live just across the railroad tracks to the north), then a mile and a half south. At that intersection, the Slater place was just to the east; the May place just to the west; and John and Sarah Relph lived just to the south in what had been the first frame house built in Washington and/or Benton townships.

Virginia said...

Frank, Thanks for the information. There used to be a May family whose son rode on the same high school bus as I did. Seems that I remember that he was called Jr. One kind of vivid memory that I have is of one snowy, icy winter day when the bus couldn't get all the way up the hill just up from their house and it started sliding back down. Funny I don't remember any of the rest of the details. Another question--did Dale and Mary Lou ever live east of Russell?